Our choice: A living seashore or a silent landscape

08/07/2014

Friday’s closing ceremony for Drakes Bay Oyster Company felt like a wake for someone still living. Or had that person died? None of the people gathered on the shores of the estuary seemed to know, and Drakes Estero herself was silent, if you hoped for an answer there. The succession of speakers who braced against the cold gusts rolling in off the ocean each shared their own emotional mixture: a funny combination of denial, defiance and resignation, as an NPR reporter described it, a cocktail the whole crowd seemed to be drinking. Since I did not (and do not) know if the fight is over—if the oyster farm still has a sliver of a chance at remaining in its nearly century-old home, or if the oysters themselves have a chance at a new iteration there or elsewhere—I spoke about what I do know. 

First, Kevin and Nancy Lunny are remarkable people. They are not only first-rate oyster growers and stewards of the land and waters, but they have personally borne the burden of a battle for a holistic vision of the Point Reyes National Seashore. They have demonstrated heroic courage and generosity. And they’ve given many others a chance to be heroic in their own right, as friends, organizers, researchers, scientists and lawyers. In the repeated utterance that this episode has divided West Marin, maybe another truth is overlooked: that it has made many of us stronger through the articulation of our values. Still, the last several years have polarized us, and both sides feel battered. There will be no quick reconciliation or healing.    

In part, that’s because the battle over the oyster farm continues as a larger struggle to define the future character of our seashore. The ranchers association, galvanized by the Lunnys’ fight, now has a persuasive and unified vision. It is one that restores the working landscape in what they call a return to Shafter-era agriculture. In the last half of the nineteenth century, Point Reyes was the state’s artichoke capital; farmers raised pigs, chickens, turkeys and sheep alongside cattle and the dairy ranchers had their own butter label. In the 21st century, the peninsula could again accommodate row crops and diverse livestock; ranching families, if allowed to build processing facilities, develop worker housing, and sell their wares, could present visitors to Point Reyes with salmon, halibut, crab and oysters; eggs, milk, yogurt, cheeses and butter; flowers and vegetables; preserves, yarns and so much more. Developing this economy would keep longtime agricultural families intact, with the rising generation building on the wisdom of their parents and grandparents. It would also provide jobs and model the kinds of economic resilience, food security, cooperative conservation and climate-responsive environmental practices we need to develop in our rapidly changing world. 

From the John Sansing era, when the seashore’s historic structures were bulldozed on a whim, to the Don Neubacher era, when entire herds of deer were slaughtered (and the meat thrown away) only because they were non-native, we could arrive at a more balanced and forward-thinking era. But that can only happen with a good leader. Ever since its last leader left amid the embarrassment of the oyster-farm debacle, the seashore has been adrift. Cicely Muldoon has hidden behind the excuse of Washington: she is hamstrung, she is powerless. Her staff is crippled by gag orders; in the eyes of much of the public, their work is neither held accountable nor free of an overarching bias. The administration hunkers down under scrutiny rather than stepping up and opening up. And this in a place where people are informed, willingly engaged and conservation-minded. We are scientists, naturalists, farmers, gardeners, defenders of wildlife, historians, educators, activists, artists and storytellers. We are a tremendous resource, the ideal place for the National Park Service to practice its own principles and policies of cooperative conservation, and yet we are left out. The public process involved in planning and environmental reviews feels like a charade. We are directly impacted neighbors, yet we are told our opinions matter no more than those of any other Americans. But that vast demographic is influenced by the propaganda sent out by the Environmental Action Committee and the Sierra Club, organizations that have grown reckless. 

So this is where all oyster farm supporters should redouble their efforts: In effecting change in our local park administration. There should be a resurrection of the citizen’s advisory committee or some version of it; there should be meetings where both park service officials and the public can actually speak and listen to each other. There should be transparency, accountability and feedback loops in the planning and execution of projects, from the removal of dune grass to the management of elk. The ranchers should be dealt with as a unified association; their detailed letters, full of concrete proposals, deserve responses. And isn’t their vision competitive with that of wilderness advocates—the latter’s being a vacated park, a postcard for the 2.6 million visitors to view through their windshields? The choice between a living, breathing seashore and a ghost park sure feels these days like an urgent one.